For most Americans, attending a major fireworks display during the Fourth of July holiday is a staple of the summer schedule. That usually means friends, family, hot dogs, lemonade — and a boatload of sparklers and whizz-bangs so you can celebrate the nation’s birth with the smell of gunpowder.
However, the Fourth only became a major part of American life in recent decades. This is evidenced by the fireworks industry’s revenue growth every year but one in the last 20 years, with a three-fold gain overall. So, to get a better sense of how America’s passion for the biggest and best fireworks started to burn so brightly, here’s a look at the American Pyrotechnic Association’s (APA) figures on industry revenue going back to 1998, along with some fascinating facts about the history of fireworks in America.
1998: $425 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $141 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $284 million
Fireworks have always been a part of the Fourth of July since the very first time it was celebrated, according to Julie Heckman, the Executive Director of the APA. The fireworks industry’s year revolves around the Fourth — maybe even more so than retail stores build their year around Christmas or florists plan around Valentine’s Day.
“The fourth of July is definitely the bread and butter of the firework industry,” she said in an interview with GOBankingRates. “On the professional display side, it’s between 70-75% [of total sales]. For backyard consumer fireworks, it’s higher: it’s 85% to 90%.”
1999: $500 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $167 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $333 million
When it comes to fireworks on the Fourth of July, the tradition dates back to before the country’s independence was a certainty. Over the years, fireworks have become an important part of many local communities across the country.
“Small town America, that’s how we celebrate the fourth of July,” said Heckman. “It is part of our heritage going back to John Adams and when the early settlers came to the United States.”
2000: $607 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $203 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $407 million
John Adams is certainly a name to remember for American fireworks enthusiasts. It was his words that are often cited as establishing the use of fireworks to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“John Adams had written a letter to his wife after the declaration was signed basically saying that we shall celebrate the fourth of July every year with ‘pomp, parade, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to another,'” said Heckman. “And we credit the ‘illuminations’ with meaning fireworks.”
2001: $650 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $217 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $433 million
But, as Heckman points out, the fireworks industry doesn’t shut its doors on July 5 every year. Particularly when it comes to big displays, “illuminations” are becoming more and more commonplace at a variety of events throughout the year.
“The professionals are involved in all sorts of community events,” Heckman said, “ … Big major displays that occur year-round, typically with county fairs or local festivals. Fireworks are now part of almost every major sporting event [too.]”
2002: $725 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $242 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $483 million
Holding a major fireworks event is clearly memorable, but it’s not always cheap. While smaller communities can still afford their own displays without busting their budgets, larger displays can start to cost a lot more.
“The cost can vary, but if you’re talking about a small town/municipality, those displays are probably in the $7,500 range,” said Heckman. “You get to a slightly bigger municipality, you’re looking at $15-20,000. You take a major city you’re talking $50-$75,000. And a major event will be over six figures.”
2003: $775 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $258 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $517 million
Of course, in many cases, it’s the throngs of admirers that are the most costly.
“It’s not always the cost of the fireworks,” Heckman said. “There are a lot of other things that go into that. Some of those major events … there are infrastructure costs. So it’s not always about just the cost of the fireworks, it’s about street closures and portapotties. Those events will cost millions of dollars to produce, but it’s not millions of dollars for fireworks.”
2004: $815 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $272 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $543 million
The history of fireworks in America can be traced all the way back to John Adams, but it gained a major boost from Italian-American immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“When we think of the big, display fireworks, we kind of credit the Italians,” Heckman said. “They were the first Europeans to actually manufacture fireworks. And the Italians brought that trade with them to the United States. So when we look at our membership in the APA, many are fourth, fifth, sixth generation family businesses that are Italian.”
2005: $880 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $293 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $587 million
Those immigrants would gravitate to a small town in Pennsylvania that would become the center of a national passion.
“We believe the Italians who immigrated here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, were the manufacturers, the tradesman that actually brought their trade with them to the U.S.,” Heckman said. “There were about six Italian families that all settled, believe it or not, in New Castle Pennsylvania. Two of those families are still there … New Castle, Pennsylvania is credited with being the fireworks capital of the United States.”
2006: $900 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $300 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $600 million
The year 2006 isn’t often thought of as the 30th anniversary of the bicentennial by most — if for no other reason than it’s pretty odd to celebrate the anniversary of an anniversary — but those in the fireworks industry still view 1976 as a watershed year.
“I think the first thing that moved the industry forward was the bicentennial because every major city had a significant event to honor the bicentennial,” said Heckman. “What also coincided at that time was the first year when the U.S. consumer products safety commission promulgated regulations for consumer fireworks.”
2007: $930 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $310 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $620 million
Heckman emphasizes that it was an increasing push to legalize the use of consumer fireworks that helped create widespread popularity and growth in the industry.
“I think since about 2008, we’ve seen a trend nationwide to relax or liberalize the consumer firework laws,” Heckman said. “As more states, cities and towns allow the sale and use of fireworks, the sales have just, pardon the pun, ‘skyrocketed.’”
2008: $940 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $313 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $627 million
You can see just how dramatic the growth of the industry really was in 2008. While growth slows considerably, the fact that it grew at all in the face of the cratering economy that year is a testament to just how popular fireworks remained even when people had less money to spend on them.
“People love their fireworks,” said Heckman. “When the economy was struggling with the recession in 2008, the industry did not feel that. Somewhat recession resistant. Because backyard fireworks are affordable. They’re affordable, safe family fun. So what we found was that when families couldn’t afford to go on vacation … their neighbors and friends would all gather, chip in their money and decide they were all going to have their own backyard fireworks display.”
2009: $945 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $315 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $630 million
What’s more, legalization led to improved safety standards for consumer products and have helped dramatically reduce the rate of injury even while the total number of fireworks in use kept rising. Injury rates as of 2016 were about 90% lower than the levels in 1976 despite well over five times as many fireworks being sold.
“I’m not aware of one other consumer product on the market that has record-breaking growth, but at the same time, has such a dramatic decline in injuries,” Heckman said. “ … The more they’re legal, the injuries tend to decline.”
2010: $952 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $316 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $636 million
While another impressive year for the industry, 2010 marked the launch of a different kind of “Firework.” Katy Perry released her hit single by that same name that would hit No. 1 on the charts in December.
2011: $967 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $318 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $649 million
While there’s a long history surrounding fireworks in the United States, it’s next to nothing when placed against the tradition in China — the country where the firework was invented.
“We trace the history of fireworks back to China in the second century B.C.,” Heckman said. “We believe that the first firecracker was actually bamboo stalks that were filled with gunpowder and when they were thrown into a fire they made a bang. And the Chinese loved to use that type of firecracker to ward off evil spirits, so it’s very common for the Chinese to use firecrackers for any occasion.”
2012: $965 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $320 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $645 million
China, however, is clearly not looking to celebrate American independence with a bang. There, fireworks are more popular around the Chinese New Year celebrations, when firecrackers are among the important parts of the tradition. It’s a major holiday for the Chinese, prompting fireworks companies elsewhere to adjust.
“It’s a Chinese celebration,” Heckman said. “The factories that we deal with are shut. They close down for a full month to celebrate the Chinese New Year.”
2013: $990 Million
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $328 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $662 million
And without China, there might not be any fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July or Chinese New Year alike. That’s because the country became the center of manufacturing for fireworks used in the United States after American manufacturers moved away from producing the goods domestically.
“They rely on China,” said Heckman about American fireworks companies. “Seventy-five percent of the display product and 99% of the consumer product comes from China.”
2014: $1 Billion
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $332 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $695 million
Of course, that fact has created a lot of uncertainty for American sellers in recent months given just how much of their product is made in China and imported.
“Our biggest concern right now is the tariffs,” said Heckman, as a 25% tariff on virtually all of the industry’s consumer products will mean either raising prices or cutting profit margins significantly.
2015: $1.1 Billion
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $340 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $755 million
The world’s largest aerial firework shell is the spectacular Yonshakudama shell first launched in Japan in 2014. Today, the 1,014-pound shell — which measures 47 inches in diameter — is launched annually for the Katakai-Matsuri Festival in Honshu, Japan. The incredible display rockets up to about 2,700 feet in height before exploding with a display that stretches over 2,624 feet across.
2016: $1.2 Billion
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $345 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $825 million
This year was not only another strong year for American fireworks sales, but it was kicked off with the largest fireworks display in history. The Iglesia Ni Cristo in the Philippines celebrated its countdown to the New Year with a stunning display that launched some 810,904 fireworks in just over an hour — the most in any one display ever.
2017: $1.2 Billion
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $353 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $885 million
One thing that remains perfectly clear is that the American appetite for fireworks doesn’t appear to be stopping — or even slowing — anytime soon. If tariffs are going to put a serious dent in sales, it’s going to require reversing a long, powerful trend in the opposite direction.
“There were 29 million pounds of fireworks — meaning both consumer and display — used in the U.S. [in 1976],” said Heckman. “By 2000, with the millennium celebration, that had grown up to 152 million pounds. And as of 2017 … we’re over 250 million pounds annually now. That’s huge growth.”
2018: $1.3 Billion
- Display Fireworks Revenue: $360 million
- Consumer Fireworks Revenue: $945 million
So, in the last 20 years, American fireworks sales have tripled from about $400 million a year to some $1.3 billion. So whatever else you do this Fourth of July — from barbequing to seeing a parade — you’re building on a long, proud tradition when you choose to do so with fireworks.
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Photo Disclaimer: Please note some photos are for representational purposes only. As a result, some of the photos might not reflect the exact year listed in this article.